When he proclaimed the national holiday called Thanksgiving in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln did more than ask Americans to be grateful for God’s blessings during a time of civil strife. He also asked them to express “humble penitence” for their “disobedience.” The idea of confessing one’s failings and regretting them is no longer part of Thanksgiving. Yet given the current civil strife over so many public figures being accused of sexual wrongdoing, perhaps humility and repentance should be on the menu this holiday.
So far, almost all of the men in politics, media, sports, and Hollywood who have admitted to sexual harassment or assault did so only after a few brave women made allegations against them in public. The #MeToo movement has now helped lift a social stigma for many abused women while bringing to light past wrongs. Yet “to heal the wounds of the nation” (Lincoln’s words in his proclamation) will require more than remorse and apologies after being accused. It will require those who have abused women and girls (or men and boys) to come forth voluntarily and admit their acts.
Such truth-telling, especially if not done out of fear of being accused, will take as much courage as that shown by the accusers. Those confessing may face severe punishment. Yet to admit a sin, as well as regret it and accept whatever justice or repair is needed, is a step toward destroying its power over one’s self. It may also assist others in doing the same, much like the freedom felt among abused women who, after years of silence, have followed the examples of others who went public with their charges.
Lincoln saw penitence as a path to restore the nation “as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes.” Humility is a form of prayer. It is self-examination that does not change God or others but rather one’s own thinking. It does not come with an expectation of mercy or pardon but rather with a desire for reform and restoration.
The Civil War was a tragedy as much as the sexual harms being revealed today. Yet one lesson of that war should not be forgotten. In the middle of it, Lincoln sought to uplift and heal all sides by declaring a day of thanksgiving, not only with a call for gratitude but also a call for meek admission of wrongdoing.